ATLANTA — It was Memorial Day, and Stephen Strasburg was an utter mess. He was dealing with a variety of nagging-but-seemingly-minor ailments that either knocked him out of games early or resulted in opponents scoring runs in bunches against him.
Strasburg’s ERA stood at 6.55, a staggering 109th out of 110 qualifying major-league starting pitchers. And so observers near and far all wondered the same thing: Was this the end of Stephen Strasburg as we knew him?
Four months later, Strasburg answered that question as definitively as possible. After a dominant stretch of 13 starts as impressive as any other in his career, the Nationals right-hander resurrected his season and silenced whatever doubts had been placed on him.
And with one final dominant performance Thursday night at Turner Field — six scoreless innings during a 3-0 victory over the Braves — Strasburg put a stamp on the most unusual season of his career. From 3-5 with a 6.55 ERA on Memorial Day to 11-7 with a 3.46 ERA on October 1.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process,” he said.
Indeed he did. Strasburg learned two important lessons over the course of the last six months, one physical and one mental.
Start with the mental lesson.
“I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there,” he said. “There are times in the game when you can kind of let your focus slip just for a split second. And I made it a point to not let that happen, to just focus on each pitch and just let everything I’ve got go on that individual pitch and turn the page.”
It had been a longstanding issue for Strasburg. If one thing didn’t go his way, it would lead to two or three more things turning sour.
Not so much down the stretch this year. Strasburg allowed more than three runs only once in his final 13 starts, suffering through perhaps only one or two truly poor innings the entire time.
Now, for the physical lesson. After trying to pitch through on-and-off neck discomfort, which was the domino effect of a spring training ankle sprain that threw his mechanics out of whack, Strasburg realized more than arm ailments merit a break from pitching.
“You definitely use your whole body to throw, and when one little thing that’s not necessarily arm related occurs, you really have to figure out if that’s going to alter your [mechanics],” he said. “I want to compete every single time, because I’ve been around long enough that I know I’m not going to feel 100 percent every time. But I’ve got a little more insight on what’s OK and what I shouldn’t go out there with. I learned from it.”
It’s the kind of thing a pitcher perhaps can’t truly understand until it has happened to him, as Strasburg found out.
“Before, it was arm issues,” he said of previous seasons. “And I was kind of like: ‘Oh, my arm hurts, so I probably shouldn’t throw anymore.’ My arm’s felt good all year. It’s just been little nicks and bruises to other parts of the body that play a huge role. And I didn’t really understand it at the time.”
Strasburg understands it now. And as he prepares for a long winter back home in San Diego, he can take solace knowing he proved to himself and anyone else out there who doubted him that he’s still got it.
Would you believe he wound up posting a lower WHIP, opponents’ batting average, on-base percentage and OPS and a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015 than in 2014? Believe it.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It was a good learning experience.”